Issue Date: September 3, 2004
Sargent Shriver modeled activism based in faith
By JOHN PODESTA
In Sarge, the impressive new biography of Sargent Shriver, author Scott Stossel recalls the words of one Shriver associate who remarked, In the active life, you emulate Jesus and try to sanctify the world. Sarge has chosen the active life.
Whether it was creating the Peace Corps or spearheading the War on Poverty, Stossel writes that almost everything about Shriver can be better understood in the context of his powerful and abiding faith.
Shrivers faith, of course, is deeply rooted in the American Catholic tradition. As a young child in Maryland, the Shriver family often shared their summer vacations with Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons. The Shrivers, like other Catholics, were thrilled by the 1928 presidential campaign of Democrat Al Smith and saddened by the anti-Catholic bigotry that helped defeat him. Later, after moving to New York, young Sarge watched as his mother and father helped launch Commonweal magazine. Sarge himself spent his afternoons after school working at the St. Pauls Guild, a Catholic bookstore opened by his parents.
During the Great Depression, Sarge, like millions of other American Catholics, found his faith reflected in the values of the New Deal. He gained a greater understanding of how the public sector could become a force for social and economic justice. Years later, as an official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Sarges Christian principles led him to mobilize the federal government itself in the cause of civil rights, economic opportunity and global understanding.
Today, the works of Sargent Shriver are a cogent reminder that long before there was a Moral Majority or a Christian Coalition, there was a different and far more progressive tradition of religion in public life.
Whether its called faithful citizenship or any of a dozen other terms, its the belief that advocating fairness and social justice is not only consistent with a belief in God, but a requirement of it.
For example, in the Gospel of Matthew we are challenged to understand Jesus admonition: Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.
The Talmud puts it this way: Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the world and does not, is responsible for the transgressions of the entire world. And, in the Quran, we read how some 1,400 years ago Muhammad explained: None of you has faith unless you love for your brother what you love for yourself.
For generations, these and other teachings provided the spiritual underpinnings for abolitionists, trade unionists and civil rights activists of every kind -- including Sargent Shriver.
Sadly, in recent years the religious voices in politics that have attracted the widest attention have too often been those with the narrowest minds. Rather than using faith to challenge injustice, they sometimes seem intent on promoting it. Theyve often been joined in this effort by politicians who attempt to clothe their ambitions in the mantle of religion.
For example, Tom Delay, the majority leader of the House of Representatives remarked that, [God] is using me, all the time, everywhere, to stand up for the biblical worldview in everything that I do and everywhere I am.
In their zeal, Delay and others on the right are ascribing to themselves divine knowledge, which Abraham Lincoln understood that mortals would always be denied.
The ways of God are mysterious, Lincoln once said, and profound beyond all comprehension.
Like Lincoln, Shriver always understood that while none of us has an inside track on divine wisdom, all of us share a responsibility to act in accordance with our faith, knowing, as President Kennedy once said, here on earth, Gods work must truly be our own.
That was the tradition of faith in American life that brought more than 350 progressive religious leaders together in Washington this past June. Meeting under the banner Faith and Progressive Politics -- A Proud Past and a Promising Future, U.S. Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders joined together to discuss how religion can help build a more just America and a more peaceful world.
They agreed that exploding health care costs, declining wages and reckless foreign policy choices were more than political problems; they were moral issues that deserved the attention and leadership of the religious community.
To some, that may have seemed like a new development, but the leaders who met that day in Washington were only renewing the covenant that guided Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Sargent Shriver and so many others before them.
Whether its the Peace Corps, Head Start, the Job Corps, VISTA, the Special Olympics or any one of the other successful initiatives he launched, its tempting to think of Sargent Shriver as Americas quintessential progressive. In many respects he is, but he is more than that. As his daughter Maria told Scott Stossel:
Faith has been the motivating factor in his whole life. Maybe this sounds kind of corny, but he totally looks to Jesus as his role model. In tough times he looks to Jesus.
Speaking as one Catholic whos never felt a conflict between my faith and my politics, all I can add is Amen.
John Podesta is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress. He served as White House chief of staff from October 1998 until January 2001.
National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004
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